When the Berwick Academy orchestra launched into Beethoven’s aria Ah! Perfido at the start of this afternoon’s Oregon Bach Festival concert, the singer was nowhere to be seen. Matthew Halls, artistic director of OBF, was on the podium, and the orchestra was starting to play Beethoven, and I was wondering, like, where’s the singer, when Tamara Wilson suddenly stormed onto the stage — singing, in a feigned rage, to the lover who has scorned her, “Ah! perfido – Per pietà, non dirmi addio” (“Have mercy, do not tell me goodbye!”)
“Would you want Tamara Wilson angry at you like that?” a friend asked at intermission.
No, I wouldn’t.
That’s the kind of quirky fun and drama that punctuated Saturday afternoon’s concert, which was engaging and engrossing from beginning to end.
First off, OBF’s new Berwick Academy for Historical Performance. OBF patrons Andrew and Phyllis Berwick coughed up some substantial sum of money to fund this idea, which is great: Go around the country, audition the best and brightest young musicians, and bring them to Eugene during the Bach festival to study historically informed performance of music, also known as HIP, with some of the leaders in the field.
HIP is where the Bach festival is headed. Halls is a proponent of using HIP methods to help open up music that’s become, perhaps, a bit stale in current performance, and it’s clear we can expect plenty more this year and in the future.
This afternoon’s concert was my own personal introduction to HIP music — that’s how far behind the times I am — and I was thrilled. The basic idea is this: HIP advocates have used a broad array of research methods to try to determine how, say, Beethoven’s work was actually performed in Beethoven’s day. Turns out not quite the same way most orchestras play it today. Instruments have changed, concert halls have changed and musical styles have changed.
So, of course, today’s concert was on period instruments, or on contemporary imitations. Violins are a bit smaller. They’re strung with gut, rather than nylon. Trumpets have no valves. Flutes have fewer mechanical keys. All this results in a warmer, less mechanically perfect, sound — and one that sounds, to my ear, more like the human voice.
Then, of course, there is the matter of how people actually played two centuries ago. This is all way beyond my understanding, but based on textual evidence, there are differences.
The overwhelming difference, for me, listening to this young orchestra at Beall Hall on Saturday, was the clarity and distinction of the sound. On the program, after Wilson’s wonderfully angry aria, was Beethoven’s second symphony, which I’ve heard — we’ve all heard — a million times, in performances and recordings that blur everything together like overcooked soup.
Saturday’s performance was more of a crisp salad. It was played by the orchestra standing on its feet (had chairs been invented yet in 1803, when this piece made its premiere? Let me check Wikipedia on that and get back to you). It was a small, almost intimate group of players, and you could hear every instrument’s voice from every section. Combined with Halls’ precise conducting, it transformed the familiar symphony into a brand new work for me.
The concert concluded with Monica Huggett, the head of Portland Baroque Orchestra and a familiar figure at OBF, performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major. Again, a smaller, more careful, and scintillating sound — one I’m definitely wanting to hear more of.
(Well, actually, there was one last unexpected piece from the orchestra. Halls had his players stand on stage, holding but not playing their instruments, and sing — yes, sing — a short Bach chorale before the audience left. And, yes, it turns out the orchestra can sing, too!)